The Gershom Scholem Family Bible

The Gershom Scholem family Bible – originally belonging to the Hirsch family, Gershom Scholem’s mother's family – was used to record births, b’nei mitzvot, marriages, and of course, deaths

The Hirsch Family Bible: Die Heilige Schrift der Israeliten, edited by Ludwig Philippson, illustrated by Gustave Doré

Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the twentieth century and an important Israeli public intellectual, had deep roots among the Jewish bourgeoisie of Germany and the family Bible chronicles that particular Jewish sensibility and culture.

The family Bible belonging to Gershom Scholem’s mother, Betty Scholem (née Hirsch) is a chronicle not only of the simchas and life events of one singular family. It is also the chronicle of the fate of the greater German Jewish community before the Second World War.

The Hirsch Family Bible: Die Heilige Schrift der Israeliten, edited by Ludwig Philippson, illustrated by Gustave Doré

The first inscription in the Bible announces that this is the chronicle of the family of Hermann Hirsch, oldest son of the butcher Aron Hirsch and his wife Brune, from Reetz in der Neumark (today, Recz, Poland). We read that Hermann had eight children: five sons (Siegmund, Arthur, Hugo, Fritz, and Hans) and three daughters (Betty, Clara, and Käthe).

The next generation recorded in the Bible includes the four sons of Arthur and Betty Scholem—Reinhold, Erich, Werner, and Gerhard (later known as Gershom)—and the two children of Hans Hirsch—Johanna and Hermann Hirsch. The birth records conclude with Betty Scholem’s grandchildren Edith, Günther (later known as David), Renate, Irene, and Arthur. In fact, grandson Arthur’s birth in October 1927 is the latest simcha recorded in this Bible.

The births of Hermann Hirsch’s children and Betty Scholem’s children

This family strongly demonstrates the declining birth rates among Jews in Germany, and German Jews had, on average, two-children families long before their Christian neighbors. Hermann Hirsch had eight children. His three adult children had four, two, and no children. Betty Hirsch Scholem’s four sons had a total of five children. Even excluding Gershom Scholem’s childless marriage with Escha Burchhardt, the Scholems were below the average of 2.33 children per Jewish family in Prussia in 1925 (though above the average of 0.69 children for families with one Jewish parent and one Christian parent). Factors that likely contributed to their family size were their residence in a big city and the turbulence within their marriages.

The births of Hans Hirsch’s children and Betty Scholem’s grandchildren

Hermann Hirsch and his descendants listed their family weddings. Hermann noted that he and Johanna Plaum from Rawitsch (today, Rawicz, Poland) were married by Rabbi Elhanan Rosenstein in Berlin in 1862 and that Betty and Arthur Scholem were married by Rabbi Rudolf Ungerleider of Berlin in 1890 in Charlottenburg. These are the only two weddings listed with detail.

As a result, it is not clear if other marriages were with non-Jewish spouses, though most were not, in fact. However, readers of Gershom Scholem’s memoir, From Berlin to Jerusalem, will recognize two mixed marriages listed here without comment: Käte Hirsch to Walter Schiepan in 1911 and Werner Scholem to Emmy Wichelt in 1917. It is also recorded in this Bible that Gershom Scholem and his first wife, Elsa “Escha” Burchhardt, married on 5 December 1923—Gershom’s 26th birthday. (In From Berlin to Jerusalem, Scholem writes, “We married in November 1923 on the roof of the Mizrahi teachers’ seminary.”)

Family marriages

Many of the entries in the Bible mention where events took place. Fritz Hirsch was born in 1875 and died in 1876 in Leobschütz (today, Głubczyce, Poland), where Hermann was then working for the Jewish community. By 1878, the family had moved to the Berlin area. The wedding of Betty Hirsch and Arthur Scholem took place in the newly built synagogue of Charlottenburg, then an independent city adjacent to Berlin. In the years before World War I, Charlottenburg had an affluent population, a well-respected technical college, new department stores, and a sizeable Jewish community with several synagogues. Among them was a private synagogue partially owned by Betty’s father.

Simchas in the life Hermann Hirsch and his family

When Betty married Arthur and moved to central Berlin, she entered a different world from Charlottenburg. Though central Berlin also had a large Jewish community, it was more diverse than Charlottenburg—religiously, culturally, and economically. It was also the seat of royal power and the center of Germany’s newspaper industry, which was important for the Scholems, who were printers. In the years before World War I, Betty’s sister Käte and brother Hans lived in Schöneberg, another independent city adjacent to Berlin. Though generally not as affluent as Charlottenburg, Schöneberg was largely middle-class and had a substantial Jewish community. The so-called Bavarian Quarter of Schöneberg was home to particularly large, upper-middle-class Jewish population in the 1920s and early 1930s.

While Aron Hirsch worked a butcher in the small town of Reetz, which had less than 100 Jews, Hermann Hirsch became a successful man and a leader of the Jewish community in Charlottenburg. In this Bible, he recorded a number of happy events, including the purchase of a house in Charlottenburg, the purchase of property for the construction of a synagogue, and his election to Jewish communal office. He was active in Berlin Jewish communal affairs. Two of Hermann’s children were able to study at university, a rarity for any Germans in that era and something exceptionally unusual for women. It is noted in the Bible that Hans Hirsch earned a doctorate at the University of Berlin and Käte Hirsch earned a doctorate in medicine at the University in Freiburg. She then opened a medical practice in Schöneberg. Hans, who worked as a chemist, later received his license as a patent attorney.

Simchas in the life of Hans, Käthe, and Johanna Hirsch

The family’s death records are quite telling. The first four deaths – those of Hermann Hirsch’s parents and in-laws – are listed with a curious mix of the Hebrew month and Christian year, e.g., 17 Sivan 1864. All other deaths are listed only with the Christian/secular date. Among the most striking things about this family record is the high rate of child mortality. Siegmund Hirsch died at the age of seven, Hugo at the age of two. Arthur Hirsch died when he was only 11 days old, and Fritz died days before his first birthday. Clara lived to be only 17 years old. Only three of Hermann Hirsch’s children lived to adulthood: Betty, Käte, and Hans. In fact, as late as the 1880s, more than 40 percent of all German Jewish deaths occurred before the age of fifteen. Yet high as that proportion seems today, it was still much lower than the equivalent among non-Jews, which remained above 50 percent into the twentieth century. German Jews also had a higher life expectancy than Christian Germans. However, the final death recorded in the Bible was that of Arthur Scholem, Betty’s husband, who died in February 1925 at the age of 61.

Family deaths

This Bible’s inscriptions capture the experience of several generations of the German Jewish middle class. It is a story of migration and urbanization. It is a tale of secularization, bourgeoisification, and educational and professional advancement. It is a story of Jews becoming Germans, or at least maintaining a hybrid identity. However, it was an experience that ended in dispersion and destruction. Hermann Hirsch’s three surviving children all experienced the Holocaust. In 1939, Betty Hirsch Scholem escaped to Australia. Hans Hirsch was able to flee to Brazil. Käte Hirsch Schiepan was deported to Theresienstadt, where she died in 1943.

“Let there be light!”

The fate of Betty Scholem’s four sons, whose births are listed in Bible, also exemplified the fate of the historic Jewish community in Germany. Like so many German Jews, Gershom Scholem went to Palestine; however, in contrast to most German Jews in Palestine in the 1930s, he was a long-time resident of the Yishuv, having made aliyah in 1923. He became a master of the Hebrew language and a giant in the Israeli intelligentsia. Nonetheless, his professional and social circle in Jerusalem remained notably German or Central European. Reinhold and Erich Scholem immigrated to Australia during the summer of 1938 and began the process of rebuilding their lives. After many years, Reinhold established himself and enjoyed prosperity. In contrast, Erich struggled to regain the business success that the Scholems had known in Berlin. Their brother Werner Scholem, who had been a leader of the German Communist Party, was arrested in 1933 by the Nazis and sent to prison. Even though a court acquitted him of the legal charges against him, there was no way out of the Nazis’ system of injustice and terror for him. He was murdered in the Buchenwald concentration camp in July 1940.

​This article was written by ​Jay Geller, Samuel Rosenthal Professor of Judaic Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.


Resolving Biblical Contradictions – in Translation

The first Hebrew translation of the famous work El Conciliador also served as the translator’s own personal diary

“I was happy and joyful as my beloved daughter was born…and died on the night of the 5th”

For thousands of years, Jews and Christians alike have turned to the Bible as a means of resolving the many contradictions in their lives. In the 17th century, the Rabbi and diplomat Menasseh Ben Israel turned the tables: he wrote a book named El Conciliador (The Conciliator), in which he attempted to resolve the contradictions within the Bible itself. This was a tremendous task, and his target audience did not consist only of fellow Jews.

Click here for the complete manuscript online

In El Conciliador, Menasseh Ben Israel addresses two potential audiences: Christian scholars and clergymen interested in gaining more knowledge about the Jewish faith, and the descendants of the Conversos in Spain and Portugal. The latter wished to return to their Jewish roots after many generations during which they (and their ancestors) were forced to live as Christians.

A copper engraving by the Jewish artist Salom Italia depicting Menasseh Ben Israel encircled by Latin writing. The print, whose dimensions are 13×19.5 cm, was apparently produced soon after the engraving was done in 1643. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library

The book follows a consistent pattern: the author presents two contradictory Biblical verses, describes the precise contradiction he found in them (as the reader does  not necessarily spot the contradiction or in some cases he or she may identify another contradiction instead), and then attempts to “resolve” the contradiction: he makes use of both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, occasionally quoting luminaries such as Seneca or Plato, thereby displaying extraordinary in-depth knowledge coupled with interpretive skills.

It is interesting to note that when Menasseh Ben Israel refers to Plato as an authority he does not hesitate to claim that the father of philosophy was directly influenced by the Jewish religion and that many of his conclusions are based on the Bible.

The Latin translation of Menasseh Ben Israel’s El Conciliador was completed in 1633 and shows the book’s importance to the Christian public. From the National Library of Israel collection

Like many of Menasseh Ben Israel’s endeavors, El Conciliador was crowned a tremendous success. The book was re-published over the years in a number of editions, and was even translated into other European languages. It established its author as an authority on Jewish sources, and earned him the title “Ambassador of the Jews”. In the wake of the book’s success, an extensive exchange of letters began between Menasseh Ben Israel and Christian scholars throughout the continent. It took over 200 years for El Conciliador to be translated into Hebrew.

“Resolving” the Contradictions of the 19th Century in Hebrew

Little is known about the life of Mr. Raphael Kirchheim, who translated El Conciliador into Hebrew. We know even less about why this 19th century German-Jewish scholar chose to undertake this task. It is possible that as a Jew affiliated with the Reform movement, which attracted many German Jews in the 19th century, he saw the translation of El Conciliador as a project with personal and general-Jewish significance, especially when considering the period in which he was active.

The first page of the Hebrew translation of El Conciliador by Raphael Kirchheim. This is not a complete translation of the original book, but primarily a translation of the sections focusing on the Pentateuch. From the National Library of Israel collection

After all, the time in which Kirchheim lived was a period in which the unity which had characterized the Jewish people for much of their history was irreparably ruptured, a century replete with novel Jewish figures: enlightened Jews fighting to reform education and the Jewish library; Hassidim searching for a new spiritual experience; Orthodox Jews struggling to maintain the status quo; and toward the end of this tumultuous century: Zionist pioneers.

Reminiscent of the author of the work he translated into Hebrew, Kirchheim’s translation tells us a thing or two about his own boldness. Kirchheim did not suffice with simply translating, he also wrote his comments (and often reservations) on El Conciliador’s conclusions alongside various paragraphs. In one section, for example, the translator notes that “What the author writes in Rabban Gamliel’s name is a lie, and he said the opposite to his disciples”, and in a later place in the manuscript he notes that “His [Menasseh Ben Israel] words are the opposite and are not found without each other”.

It is unclear whether Kirchheim intended to publish his translation: the manuscript is full of erasures, amendments and internal glosses. Additionally, at the end of the manuscript, Kirchheim documents the names of his relatives, the deaths of his father and his two wives over ten years apart. He does not forget to record the births of his son and daughter. When writing about his daughter, for example, Kirchheim writes “The 3rd of Adar 5601 [February 2, 1841] – was happy and joyful for me because my beloved daughter Mina was born”, two days later he added the heartbreaking words, “And (she) died on the night of the 5th”.

The page which ends the Hebrew manuscript of El Conciliador in which the translator notes the history of his immediate family. Here Kirchheim records the birth of his son and daughter, and his daughter’s death a few days after her birth. From the National Library of Israel collection

Most of the details surrounding the Ben Israel/Kirchheim manuscript are still unknown to us.

However, the more pressing question is undoubtedly: can the resolution of the many contradictions in the Bible truly bring about friendship between the various members of this tumultuous nation?

A First Glimpse into the Treasures of the “Afghan Genizah”

A first glimpse into a few fascinating documents that reveal the life of the Afghan-Jewish communities during the 11th-13th centuries

Jeremiah 17 from the "Afghan Genizah"

In the last few years an exciting and historic discovery was made. A rare collection of hundreds of documents from the 11th to the 13th century was discovered in an area of present day Afghanistan. In 2013, the National Library procured a portion of this rare treasure. Now, after great efforts to preserve the “Afghan Genizah” collection for future generations, the library purchased close to 250 more manuscripts.

This discovery will keep the Library and researchers busy for years to come and enables a rare view of the Jewish-Afghan community and the rich Muslim cultures that lived in that region. Meanwhile, here is a first glimpse to several special documents from the “Afghan Genizah”.


Mishnah Seder Nezikin

Mishnah Seder Nezikin (Order of Damages) from the “Afghan Genizah”

It is clear that the scribe of this Mishnah was deft in his craft: In dense hand writing, while being entirely coherent, the scribe copied the Seder Nezikin regarding idol worship from the Mishnah. The scribe differentiated sentences with a colon, for two possible reasons: first, it is commonly used in scripture; and second, in order to use as much of the page he had at hand.


Haftarot (Leviticus-Numbers)

Jeremiah 17 from the “Afghan Genizah”

Zechariah 2 from the “Afghan Genizah”

Among the documents within the “Afghan Genizah” procured by the National Library are two Haftarot taken from Jeremiah 17 (the first pair of pages) and from Zechariah 2 (the second pair of pages). It is interesting to note that every verse is translated into Aramaic. What does this inform us regarding the prevalence of Hebrew among the members of the Jewish-Afghan community in the 11th-13th centuries?


Proverbs 22-23

Proverbs 22-23 from the “Afghan Genizah”

Not a lot survived from this nearly 1000 year old page, and yet, we can identify that it is a part of a copy of the Book of Proverbs (chapters 22-23).


Siddur for Shabbat Prayers

Siddur for Shabbat Prayers from the”Afghan Genizha”

This is an interesting siddur for Shabbat, on the first page presented here, the Kiddush for Shabbat ends with a special wording taken from the book of Nehemiah, chapter 9, verse 14: “And madest known unto them Thy holy Sabbath, and didst command them commandments, and statutes, and a law, by the hand of Moses Thy servant” (Trans. 1917 JPS).

This is an uncommon ending to the prayer and is an example of the small, yet significant differences within the Afghan Siddurim of the 11th-13th centuries.


Commentaries on the Torah in Jewish Persian (Leviticus 11)

Leviticus 11 from the “Afghan Genizah”

The parchment presented here in Jewish Persian (Persian written in Hebrew letters) and it contains commentaries for verses 21-22 from Leviticus 11. The verses that survived the passage of time are part of a Halakhic discussion regarding the kosher slaughtering of animals. Most of the writing has faded and damaged, and we can only decipher a few words here and there.


A Trader’s Notebook

A Trader’s Notebook from the “Afghan Genizah”

This is a fully preserved page from a trader’s notebook. This notebook belonged to a Jewish merchant known as Abu Nasser from the 11th century; it sheds light on the economic and business life of the Jews that lived by the Silk Road. The notebook recounts a number of business transactions that occurred between Jews and Muslims in the region.


The National Library of Israel is grateful to the William Davidson Foundation and the Haim and Hanna Salomon Fund for their generous support of this acquisition.

The Initial Proposals That Fell Short: How the Israeli National Emblem Was Chosen

It was a close competition between artists to see who would receive the honor of designing the National Emblem

By Daniella Gardosh-Santo and Yoram E. Shamir

Two days before the declaration of independence of the State of Israel, the members of the People’s Administration realized that they forgot a rather important detail about the polity about to be formed: They had yet to decide on the State’s name. Various suggestions were tabled at that meeting: Judah, Zion, and of course, the eventual winner – Israel.

Three weeks after the State’s establishment, the interim provisional government invited the citizens of Israel to propose a design for the national flag and emblem. The design guidelines left the competing artists with room for creative license.

The guidelines specified which colors were to be used: sky-blue and white “and any other color as per the artist’s taste” and the emblem was to feature a seven-lamp candelabra and seven stars. The guidelines also stated that,  “Any other suggestion or idea is welcome,” and included the disclaimer that, “The government is not obliged to accept any of the suggestions received.”

No inscription was specified and no guidelines were given regarding borders or framing of the emblem.

The final date for submissions was June 14, 1948.

Inscription: “Proposed emblem for the State of Israel”


Inscription: “Peace Upon Israel” and the names of the 12 tribes




Inscription: “Israel”. Above: “Proposed emblem for the State of Israel”; next to yellow box: “Can also be gold.”


Above: Some of the proposals rejected by the Commission to Select the National Emblem

The Provisional Government’s call yielded 450 proposals submitted by 164 applicants. One by one they were all rejected by the committee established for the purpose. A second ad calling for submissions was published. In the second round, the proposed emblem by Gavriel and Maxim Shamir of Shamir Brothers Studio carried the day. The combination of five elements in the Shamir Brothers proposal convinced the commission members that they had found a winner:

One of the first sketches proposed by the Shamir Brothers to the Commission to Select the National Emblem

The menorah and the stars appeared as required by the tender. The Shamir brothers added three additional elements: The olive branches, the heraldic shield and the colors.

They chose to design the menorah in a modern fashion. “Our intention was to create a modern symbol and forego the traditional element,” they revealed in an interview to ‘Maariv’ (Hebrew). The olive branches were added as the brothers found them to be “the most appealing expression of the love of peace among the People of Israel.” In the same interview the brothers told of how they  had thoroughly studied all the emblems of the countries of the world.

The Shamir brothers in the 1970’s. Photo by Yoram Shamir

In the course of their research they discovered that no country had a candelabra in its emblem, but one country did have a six-pointed star, like the “Star of David”. It is most likely that they also learned that the vast majority of national emblems were in the shape of heraldic shields, such as those used by royal and noble houses since the middle ages.

Although the design had been approved, the Shamir brothers were asked to make some changes to the emblem. Firstly, to add the name “Israel.” Second, to replace the modern menorah with the one carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome. After examining two versions prepared by the brothers, the committee decided to drop the stars. The final proposal was submitted to the commission on February 10, 1949 and was approved unanimously.

Two days later the official newspaper of the Provisional Government published an announcement of the national emblem signed by the commission’s chairman, Yosef Sprintzak. A few months later, the Shamir brothers prepared a final version of the emblem, in which the base of the menorah was embellished.

Sketch of the final version of the national emblem from 1949, signed by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. When the commission to select the flag and emblem was criticized for the lengthy process, Ben-Gurion replied: “Choosing a flag and emblem for the state is not done every day.”

The unveiling of the emblem brought with it both praise and criticisim. The critique focused on the graphic design and the choice of the menorah from the Arch of Titus, which is at odds with the description of the temple menorah as described in the bible. “Apparently foreign hands have been involved, and it is not all in accordance with the sacred text,” was the ruling of Chief Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog.

An article published on February 21, 1949 in the ‘Yedioth Ahronoth’ newspaper posited: “What would the artists prefer: A design that was approved, yet critiqued, or one that was rejected and acclaimed by all? We would safely guess that the Shamir Brothers would choose the former.”

About the authors of the article

Daniella Gardosh-Santo formerly served as head of the Children and Youth Department for Israel’s public broadcaster Channel 1. She is the daughter of renowned cartoonist ‘Dosh’ – Kariel Gardosh. Along with her brother she initiated the Dosh prize for cartoonists. Daniella and Yoram Shamir were co-curators of the exhibit “More Than Just an Emblem” at The Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon.

Yoram E. Shamir has been studying graphics for the past decade. He recently  curated (along with Rotem Kislev) an exhibit on the National Library website titled “Football Under the Auspices of His Majesty.” Over the last three years Shamir has edited two books on graphics as well as a website devoted to the works of his father and uncle – The Shamir Brothers.